Hadley Free­man

From Se­in­feld to bagels, it was al­ways pretty easy to be a Jew in Amer­ica. What changed?

The Guardian - Weekend - - News -

Re­cently a clutch of Amer­i­can rel­a­tives came to visit me in London. I don’t get to see my ex­tended fam­ily so much these days, but thanks to the in­ter­net they see me all the time, read­ing my ar­ti­cles and send­ing mes­sages so sup­port­ive they oc­ca­sion­ally re­ject English as in­suf­fi­ciently ador­ing a and opt for Yid­dish (“I’m kvel­ling!”). They T ask me about the dif­fer­ent things I’ve been writ­ing about: celebri­ties, fem­i­nism, and so on. But when they made the transat­lantic trip this time there was a rare con­sen­sus: they all wanted to talk about the rise of an­tisemitism in Europe.

“What is go­ing on? It’s just crazy!” one un­cle said to me af­ter I wrote about protest­ing against an­tisemitism in Bri­tish pol­i­tics. We dis­cussed the rise in ver­bal and phys­i­cal at­tacks on Jews in the UK, the elec­tion of Vik­tor Or­bán in Hun­gary, the Law and Jus­tice party in Poland. He was es­pe­cially hor­ri­fied by the mur­der of 85-year-old Holo­caust sur­vivor Mireille Knoll in Paris. “It is just unimag­in­able,” my cousin said.

Jewish-Amer­i­can iden­tity seems like it should be a pretty straight­for­ward thing – af­ter all, where is it eas­ier and safer to be Jewish than in the US? I grew up in New York City, where bagels are as much of a sta­ple as sliced bread. Not for noth­ing did Jesse Jack­son re­fer to the city as “Hymi­etown”, for which he later apol­o­gised, and it’s a tes­ta­ment to the rar­ity of such nakedly an­tisemitic re­marks dur­ing my child­hood that I still re­mem­ber that one, said in 1984. But even when we’d visit my mother’s home­town of Cincin­nati, Ohio, we could still buy drei­dels and meno­rah-shaped con­fetti at my grand­mother’s lo­cal phar­macy, just next to the in-store na­tiv­ity scene. It isn’t just us elite, east coast, al­ter­na­tive, in­tel­lec­tual, left­wing (“Jack, just say, Jewish, this is tak­ing for ever,” as Liz Lemon said on 30 Rock) Amer­i­can Jews who take our as­sim­i­la­tion for granted.

Some Jews of my grand­par­ents’ and par­ents’ gen­er­a­tions had their ears cocked for hints of an­tisemitism, but they al­ways re­minded me of Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, hear­ing imag­ined slurs in small talk (“I said, ‘Hey did you eat yet?’ and Tom said, ‘No, Jew?’ Not did you – Jew!”)

I grew up in an era in which the two big­gest US TV shows were Se­in­feld and Friends, the for­mer be­ing a show about as­sim­i­lated Amer­i­can Jewish­ness, that as­sim­i­lated its own Jewish­ness so much that it looked pos­i­tively main­stream. In Friends, Mon­ica and Ross Geller’s Jewish­ness was treated like Chan­dler’s sar­casm – as a nat­u­ral and en­dear­ing quirk. Any at­tacks on Amer­i­can Jews – the 1994 shoot­ing of four Ha­sidic teenagers in Brook­lyn, the 2009 killing of the se­cu­rity guard at the US Holo­caust Memo­rial Mu­seum – felt ran­dom and rare. Hell, this is Amer­ica, where peo­ple are shot ev­ery day, and com­pared with other groups, Jews have been rel­a­tively lit­tle tar­geted. Is it any sur­prise many of us be­came com­pla­cent? The com­monly un­der­stood story was that our an­ces­tors all fled from dan­ger to the US – a place of safety, the land of meno­rah-shaped con­fetti.

The day af­ter this week’s mass killing at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life sy­n­a­gogue, the dead­li­est at­tack on Jews in the US, it al­ready felt as if some­thing fun­da­men­tal had shifted in Jewish-Amer­i­can iden­tity. All that time Amer­i­can Jews were be­ing shocked by what they saw in Europe, they didn’t re­alise those same at­ti­tudes were fer­ment­ing at home. Jews aren’t ex­plic­itly cited as ne­far­i­ous in­flu­ences in the way, say, Mus­lims are – since 1944 ob­vi­ous an­tisemitism is gen­er­ally frowned upon. But an­tisemitic lan­guage – “glob­al­ists”, say, or “Soros” – has been fully nor­malised by rightwing US politi­cians and me­dia, and Jews know from his­tory that this kind of talk does not end well for them.

De­spite all the guff about how much Pres­i­dent Trump loves the Jews be­cause his daugh­ter is one (not that hav­ing a daugh­ter has stopped him from be­ing a re­volt­ing sex­ist pig), he has un­leashed Amer­ica’s cur­rent an­tisemitism, like the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency guy in Ghost­busters re­leas­ing long-dead ghosts. Through­out his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign he has played on an­tisemitic tropes, al­lud­ing to se­cre­tive wealth, shad­owy ca­bals and di­vided loy­al­ties. While it’s doubt­ful Trump even understands what he’s say­ing these days, he knows what gets his peo­ple cheer­ing. What hap­pened in Pittsburgh was not ran­dom, it was an in­evitable cul­mi­na­tion of a po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tion.

Many of my Bri­tish friends are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly con­scious of their Jewish iden­tity, as op­posed to their Bri­tish Jewish one. Noth­ing lets you know you are less as­sim­i­lated than you thought faster than be­ing con­sis­tently “oth­ered” by politi­cians across Europe. Some Amer­i­can Jews will now go through a sim­i­lar process, and it will be painful, be­cause our iden­tity was al­ways a state­ment about the values of the coun­try that had taken in our an­ces­tors. Those values are look­ing a lit­tle shaky right now. This isn’t about a lack of pa­tri­o­tism or split loy­al­ties, or what­ever an­tisemites say. It’s what hap­pens when you never wanted to leave your home, but your home has started to leave you

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